Underground, overground, Montreal’s free!

Named after the Mount Royal which sits at its centre, the city of Montreal is fully located on an island in the St Lawrence river. The ‘Mount’ itself is actually a hill with three separate peaks, and the surrounding park is perhaps the best example of a green space I have seen so close to a major city centre. Covering 470 acres, Mont Royal Park is mostly woodland but also has several open spaces, a man made lake, and a maze of roads and paths which allow you to cycle or hike (or drive if you’re less adventurous) to the peaks with varying degrees of inclines. Being so close to such a large hub of activity, naturally there are also excellent views of the city below if you can find the right look out spots. Naturally this is easy to do as one is home to a bus stop, another was even chosen as the site for the Chalet du Mont-Royal, and both feature obvious crowds of tourists looking out to the distance.

SAM_5168The view from the Chalet looks south – at least in terms of the Montreal compass which is arranged in terms of the St Lawrence flowing to the east (which in reality is north-east) rather than a magnetic north – and showcases the skyscrapers which have built up the downtown area. As impressive as the engineering feat of countless tall buildings can be however, the one thing that sets Montreal’s downtown apart from most others is the inclusion of something which you can’t really see from any viewpoint.

In order to make traversing the city easier in Canada’s harsh winters, a network of underground walkways have been built which connect a number of metro stations and various buildings, thus significantly reducing the need to walk anywhere outside once you arrive downtown. Many of these are also lined with shops, cafes and other boutiques, even those which are connecting shopping malls to begin with.

I began my subterranean journey at the Cours Mont-Royal, where I enjoyed the small exhibition that was the Barbie Expo, a collection of dolls which had been dressed up to represent fashions from all over the world, and recreate famous figures from pop-culture. While it was interesting to see such elaborate designs for some of the more traditionally exotic nations, the idea that Britain was represented by Flasher-Mac Barbie was somewhat lost on me, although apparently Burberry trenchcoats are a well known thing to other people?

Armed with my map however, I set off to make my way to the Place des Arts. A relatively short walk a couple of blocks down the road as the crow flies, but which takes rather a lot more time when you have to follow the U shaped network of tunnels, and get confused along the way. While there are signposts which point you in the vague direction, much of it also requires you to work a few things out for yourself, particularly when the ‘Underground’ city actually takes you a couples of storeys above ground.

SAM_5253The other lookout at the Mount, the Belvédère Camillien-Houde, looks east with a view of the Olympic Park. Built to showcase the 1976 Games, (the only Canadian city to host the Summer Games), the main stadium plays host to various sporting and entertainment events. More than this, the tower is still a major tourist attraction not only as the tallest inclined structure in the world, but itself also offers views accessible by a funicular elevator. These come with a hefty price tag though, so I was more than happy to just walk round the arena to tick off Montreal on my list of Olympic cities visited, and be content with the views from the Mount.

Right next to the Olympic Park is the Botanical Gardens, a feature of many towns and cities I saw throughout Australia, but Montreal’s is also host to the Insectarium. Displaying countless species of insects and arachnids, some mounted on display with several live specimens, mostly encased in their own enclosures, but also with an entire open air ant’s nest (although far enough away to keep it out of reach) complete with food source and a bridge connecting the two, of course resulting in the lines of ants marching between the two. (Despite the name of this blog post, the Gardens and Insectarium do come with a charge, but one I felt they were worth.)

SAM_5231Alongside the main island of the city there are also a small number of others including Île Sainte-Hélène, another green space with impressive views of the city which encompass its bredth rather than looking down on it, and which is the site of the biosphere. Originally built for Montreal’s World Fair Expo 67, it is now a museum dedicated to the environment and our impact on it, with displays looking at weather phenomena, renewable energy, etc. Generally it charges admission, but is free if you happen to turn up during Canada’s environment week, like I did. Sometimes backpacking highlights are all about coincidences.

Another coincidence was that the nearby Île Notre-Dame was also hoating the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix during my stay. Home of the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, it is just a short bridge walk away from Sainte-Hélène, provided of course the entirety of the artifical island hasn’t been cordoned off and/or you have a ticket for the event. Whislt there were several people staying at my hostel who were attending, Formula 1 tickets aren’t really in keeping with a backpacker’s budget, so decided to keep to my wallet friendly explorations of the city instead.

SAM_5329Something which lead me to another great coincidental find, a self described “big science celebration” called Eureka. Taking over a large chunk of the waterfront by the science museum, this festival was lined with tents from companies and institutions from Parks Canada to Nintendo all showing off their latest innovations and projects, complete with a number of stages where presentations were held. I was lucky enough to catch one of these which showcased th joint NASA/Candian Space Agency OSIRIS-REx mission, which is the ambitious project to collect rock and dust samples from the asteroid known as Bennu.

All in all, I have to admit that going from underground tunnels to the reaches of Space for next to nothing wasn’t a bad way to spend a week at all!

Advertisements

Right said Fredericton

There were several reasons I wanted to stop off in Fredericton during my trip across Canada; I’d initially wanted to stay in all ten provinces (although ultimately never made it to Newfoundland and Labrador), and also because Facebook often automatically tags posts made from Barnstaple as being in the North Devon which is a Fredericton suburb, rather than part of the English county. If I was going to stop off somewhere in New Brunswick, I might as well actually post something from there for the age old reason of just because I could.

I also intended to visit King’s Landing (no, not that King’s Landing) which is a historical settlement which recreated life in 1800s Canada and which I thought would be a great place to learn about Canada’s history. Unfortunately this hadn’t yet opened for the season, but in the end I ended up staying there as another friend from Australia is now living there and catching up with him was on my list of reasons to actually travel across Canada in the first place. The fact he actually lives in Devon was an added bonus.

SAM_4884Although the recent floods which Fredericton had suffered from had receded, the fact that my first evening there was still rather wet meant that the brief tour Dan and his girlfriend Amy had wanted to give me was cut short at Picaroons, the local brewery where they went to refill their reusable 64 fl.oz jugs which, much to my immature amusement, are called Growlers.

The next morning we toured the city properly however, with the added bonus of being able to cycle, and I even managed to navigate Canada’s Great Trail app enough to get the “Explorer” achievement award for exploring the trail in a second province. We stopped off for ice cream (although their favourite place had also not yet opened for the summer) by the banks of the mighty St. John river and enjoyed the serenity as Dan and Amy gave me an overview of exactly how high the floods had been, with detritus still visible in some places showing where it had been washed up.

SAM_4856For a better experience of nature in its own environment, we also went for a walk in he nearby Mactaquac Provincial Park. Although this was a great way to see some local scenery, including Eagles soaring above us, unfortunately the flies and mosquitoes reminded us that nature being a force of balance also includes enjoyment/annoyance as well.

Although Fredericton is not a big place and has few of the amenities on offer in a city even such as Halifax – most likely the reason someone joked I would be staying in “No-Funswick” – it is still a particular highlight of my visit based on another of its reputations, that of New Brunswick kitchen parties. Rather than being a specifically organised event these, I was told, were the impromptu gatherings which occured when friends and neighbours dropped in on each other and everyone congregates in the room with the most abundant food and drink.

Although I never experienced one of these for myself, even with such a short stay it was easy to see how these would occur. On my first day a couple of Dan’s friends were longboarding around the area and so popped into the kitchen for no other reason than to say hi and joined us on our trip to Mactaquac. More than just this, a neighbour also came over to introduce herself when seeing us in the front garden (Dan and his housemates hadn’t been living there that long, and I fully understood his explanation of why you wouldn’t want to spend anymore time than neccesary outside during the winter), called over another couple of neighbours who were walking past, and were even kind enough to give them some Tomato plant cuttings when they saw the work they had been doing to organise the lawn and growing beds.

Although his wasn’t the first I’d seen of Canadian hospitality on his trip, it did show that the reputation for being social and having such a sense of community wasn’t an exaggeration. From what I saw, that’s just daily life in New Brunswick.

Quebec in time

Despite all of its leanings in favour of its French heritage, Quebec City owes as much to its British forebears as it does our historic rivals. Oddly enough it’s because of the British defeat over the French in 1759 that so much French culture, including language, has survived: allowing the most recent British citizens to keep their old ways made it much less likely they would side with America in the event of further hostilities south of the border. Because of this there is such a blend of influences from the two once competing nations, although unfortunately in my case this also included he weather; sweltering 30+ degree heat followed by it absolutely pissing it down.

Not that battling the elements was my first challenge, that being finding a way out of Quebec coach station at 4 in the morning. Thanks to an open gate in an underground car park I managed it eventually, and (after a decent night’s sleep) found the city to be more than worth anything it wanted to throw at me.

SAM_5037.JPG

Within the fortified city walls, the only ones north of Mexico still standing, Vieux-Quebec is just a small part of the city overall (not that I bothered which much of the rest of it), and walking its streets it very much feels like a quaint European town. It’s no wonder the ‘Historic District of Old Québec’ was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985.

Despite its protected history however, it’s still very modern and the past and present are often combined. The citadelle overlooking the St Lawrence river is an official residence of the monarch of Canada (ie, Queen Elizabeth II) and also hosted conferences between leaders of the allied powers during WWII in which many of the details for the D-Day landings were discussed. More than this though, it is still an active military base and home to the Royal 22nd Regiment, often referred to as the ‘Van Doos’ due to the fact that they are the only French-speaking regiment within the Canadian Army.

Despite this your can still tour the historic fortifications, although only by following a guide at all times. Obviously much is off-limits (including on of the oldest brick buildings in North America, although that’s kept off the tour because it’s empty and boring), but there is also a museum which tells of he foundation and history of the 22nd Regiment, from WWI, through Korea and Afghanistan.

SAM_5028Standing on a citadelle lookout also gives one of the best views of perhaps its most recognisable feature, the Château Frontenac. Despite celebrating its own 125th anniversary, it was in fact itself built as a hotel, catering to those who wished to explore the city’s history even back in the 1890s and is considered to be he most photographed hotel in the world. Purpose built for tourists, obviously its link to the present means there is now a Starbucks located just behind the lobby.

SAM_5107Despite a few failed attempts at conversing in French (it’s appreciated that you try, but can often lead to being asked questions you can’t knowingly answer), he most confusing thing during my stay however, was an art installation called “Où tu vas quand tu dors en marchant…?”, which translates to “where are you going when you’re sleepwalking?” A series of tableaus which seemed to bear no resemblance to each other, one a depiction of a protest turned riot in which most mannequins were wearing animal masks, another a long corrider decorated with shoes and wheeled objects (a pram, a skateboards, an office chair) all painted pure white which represented the stages of life, and another which I can only describe as “very performance studies” which took place in an elaborate garden.

Obviously these had deeper meanings which I failed to completely comprehend, but are much like Quebec itself. It doesn’t matter if you understand everything or just pieces here and there, the beauty is in just walking around and taking it all in.

Good Charlottetown

On my journey to Prince Edward Island, it’s fair to say the weather was miserable. It was so foggy that when crossing the Confederation Bridge I was unable to see either shorelinefor the majority of the crossing, just the coach on an ever continuing road into grey nothingness. The scenery didn’t seem that much more appealing when we reached the otherside either, but eventually I arrived in Charlottetown.

Luckily the hostel was alot more inviting, and the proprietor was one of those select few people, either side of the Atlantic, to recognise my Cyberdyne Systems hoodie, and combined with the rack of VHS that were still available to watch in the common room, knew that I would at least be staying in my kind of environment.

I was also sharing my dorm with a lovely German couple who were both travelling on working tourist visas who reminded me that for some reason nationalities other than the UK can apply for them up until the age of 35, but like the weather I guess you can’t have everything. I attempted a brief look around when it had stopped raining, but the fact it was still wet and foggy meant that I soon turned round and my only meaningful stop was at the convenience store/laundrette/take away.

The next morning however, the sun was out and I was able to experience the small city in all it’s glory. Similar in size to somewhere like Cairns, everything is within walking distance, and it really is a pleasure to just stroll through and take it all in. Although I was surprised at first, it’s easy to see why such a renowned company as Electronic Arts would keep an office here.

SAM_4782.JPG

Home of (the under construction) Confederation

Of all it’s attractions though, Anne of Green Gables aside, it is the fact that it is often referred to as the birthplace of Canadian Confederation which garners the most attention, with everything from the bridge to the Art Centre named in honour of this. It is also something I felt I learn more about considering I’m spending 4 months here, and also after watching Charley Boorman’s Extreme Frontiers series (also a roadtrip from coast to coast but, as the name somewhat suggests, with a lot more in between) and being likewise impresssed with the tour guides referring to themselves as “heritage activists”.

Naturally a building with national importance after it played host to the first conference, Province House is currently being well looked after under the scaffolding in which it is now encased. Unable to get a decent view of the exterior in addition to obviously not being allowed inside, the aforementioned Confederation Centre of the Arts next door is playing temporary host to a recreation of the Confederation Chamber where the first steps towards a united nation of Canada were undertaken. The chandeliers are the originals which have been moved however, safely out of reach while visitors are able to fully interact with the rest of the display.

SAM_4839

The maritime theme ia still presemt

Luckily this is not all the town has to offer, as it also home to St. Dunstan’s Basillica, a cathedral which was granted the title due to the community’s efforts in restoring it after significant fire damage. There are also a number of other historic buildings which are still used in official capacities in the province’s capital, as well as a small boardwalk along the western side of the town.

I only spent one full day in Charlottetown which would still have been enough time for me to see and do everything even if Province House was open, but I could easily have spent more time just enjoying the charm of the place. I was soon on my way however, but this time the more clement weather gave me a much better experience of travelling over the Confederation bridge. All eight miles of it, which took us over ten minutes from shore to shore.

The Finest Cape

Although I hadn’t planned, much like when I was in Australia my first weekend in Canada happened to be a long bank holiday weekend. In this case Monday was Victoria Day, apparently a day to “celebrate” all things British, as if being treated to a royal wedding wasn’t enough.

With three whole days ahead of us, and no need for me to sit around waiting to open a bank account this time, Ashley and I took to the road and headed to Cape Breton, the island which makes up the western part of Nova Scotia. Our main destination was the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the Cabot Trail which runs through it. Although this is just up the road from Halifax in Canadian terms, the fact it was a five hour drive is just a small indication of how large this country really is.

When reaching the park we had to stop at the visitor’s centre to purchase our park passes for the weekend, something which does seem a little strange compared to the amount of times I’ve driven through Exmoor, but I guess it’s harder to charge a fee to experience a such a beautiful landscape when people have been calling it home for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before it was established as a national park. Nevertheless, we paid and drove through the unmanned barriers where no-one was there to check our passes, but at least we had made our contributions to the upkeep of such fantastic scenery.

SAM_4559.JPG

Our first hiking trail was the Skyline, one of the most popular within the whole park, and it was easy to see why. Armed with a plan of attack if we had to defend ourselves against any of the bears which the signs and leaflets had warned us we may see (in order to make ourselves as big and defencive as possible, Ashley would jump on my shoulders and throw the stones I would pass up to her) we set off for what would usually be a circular walk, but was unfortunately a single trail as one of the routes was not yet open. We were still able to make it to the boardwalk at the far end however, and enjoy the views it had to offer, and which had made the Cabot Trail a mainstay of guidebook recommendations the world over.

Our second for the day was the Corney Brook trail, and as one that was less popular and went through more enclosed woodland, for this we paid closer attention to the coyote habitat signs, and each picked up a long stick that had been left where the trail began which we would be able to use as walking poles/weapons where appropriate. Luckily, again, our walk remained attack free but rather than a 360 degree view this trail came to an end at a small waterfall which provided a fresh cool breeze after an afternoon of (potentially) life threatening hiking.

GOPR6430.JPG

That night we stayed at the HI hostel in Pleasant Bay which had just reopened. As one of the first weekends of the summer season they had just lit their first campfire of the year and most guests were also Nova Scotian ‘locals’. In fact the only other guest who was not from Canada was Turkish, but who now called Ottawa his home.

We started the next day carrying on along the Cabot Trail, stopping for a couple of short trails and at many lookouts along the way. When trying to call out Moose from the woods we were driving past we were lucky enough to catch a very quick sighting of two stood right in the road in front of us. Although this was unfortunately too quick to get our cameras out, it was still a success nontheless. Wild Moose in Canada, and on call as well!

Our big hike in the afternoon was the Coastal trail which took us along a number of rocky beaches on the eastern side of the National Park. Like most things in North America, the rocks were on the larger side and we were often jumping between them one at a time, but even right by the sea there were the last remnants of the winter weather, and so I was also able to add standing on Canadian snow to the list of my trip’s achievements.

SAM_4662.JPG

Some friends of Ashley’s were also kind enough to let us stay with them at their lakeside cottage that night, and I spent the evening enjoying even more generous Canadian hospitality (complete with generous helpings of Canadian beer). Before departing back for Halifax the next day we enjoyed a traditional Martime game of Washertoss, which is exactly as it sounds (tossing metal washers into a target), and Dave was also kind enough to show us a few beaches around the area.

Watching seagulls follow Lobster boats back to the shore we were able to find a number of shells and even a solitary boot which had been washed up, and before heading west to the Pacific I found the perfect spot to dip my feet in the Atlantic ocean at what would be my most easterly location in this entire country….

And bloody hell it was cold!!!

Taken Down To Peg

With Halifax situated on the coast, naturally there are a number of scenic spots in the city’s vicinity, and on one night Ashley drove us up to a particular favourite of them, Peggys Cove, to watch the sunset. She wasn’t the only one to have this idea however, as there was a small number of others who had come to enjoy the view, although hardly enough to be as over crowded as I can imagine it would get during the peak summertime.

SAM_4551.JPG

The focal point of the sunset, perhaps somewhat ironically, was a small lighthouse built on the rocky outcroppings which the waves crash against, occasionally fatally for those either unaware or overconfident and who aren’t aware of the dangers. Luckily everyone enjoyed the spectacle carefree that night though, as the moon was also visible and the colours of he sun were spectacular against such a beautiful landscape.

Although the lighthouse is the ideal spot to watch the sunset, Peggy’s Cove itself is a small fishing village that perfectly fits the idea of what one might look like: small wooden houses surrounded by lobster pots, ropes, and all manner of fishing equipment necessary for the local livlihood, to say nothing of the boats themselves. Even in the dark when driving back through remote Nova Scotia, the numerous lakes also offered a picturesque view of what Maritime scenery has to offer.

SAM_4545.JPG

As if this wasn’t Canadian enough though, Ashley and I also wailed along to Avril Lavine on the stereo with our complimentary singing voices (ie, we’re just as bad as each other), and when returning to Halifax we also stopped off at Tim Horton’s for some TimBits (essentially the holes from the middle of the donuts). Not bad for the night I also had my first locally brewed Alexander Kieth’s, another of Halifax’s must try local specialties.

The HaliFax of Life

When having dinner with my brother in London, I had a fortune cookie which said that I should “Take a moment to rework your schedule”.

I can’t say I took that advice, as I was on my way to Heathrow and about to embark on a four month coast to coast backpacking adventure across the second largest country in the world, Canada. This is something I had been wanting to do since at least returning from Australia, although I had always planned to return in some fashion since a brief visit 14 years ago.

Starting on the east coast I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was greeted at the airport by Ashley, a friend I had made in Melbourne and who was more than happy to catch up and show me around her home city. Although it is not as big as many others it is one steeped in history, and not just because being on the eastern coast made it easier for European settlers to reach.

To explore some of this one of our first stops was the city’s Citadel, a fortress looking over the surrounding area and heavily armed with numerous cannons positioned looking out over the bay. The city’s main defence in a region constantly fought over by the British and French, it was in fact so well fortified and intimidating that it was never once attacked.

SAM_4471.JPG

“Ian where’s your troosers?”

As well as explaining the history of how the Citadel and city developed, there are also several hands on exhibits, including a tailor’s shop where you can try on a historic uniform, part of which is requires a kilt. The decision for me to do this was made as soon as Ashley saw them, but I was happy to give it a go, and soon was being instructed on how to go about actually fastening one up.

To mark the centenary of the First World War, the Citadel is also home to a recreation of a front line trench. While Halifax might be about as far from the fields of Europe as you can get, the port played a large role in both World Wars, in part by serving as the embarkation point for the Canadian Navies who carried and escorted convoys of troops and supplies from North America. The city is also still host to the shipyards today which, in the 1940’s, allowed Canada to boast the world’s third largest Navy.

That’s not to say the city didn’t see any tragedy itself unfortunately, as a collision involving a munitions ship in 1917 killed around 2000 people in the surrounding area and was the largest man made explosion until Hiroshima. Aid poured in from neighbouring provinces and even the United States however, and neither the explosion or the help provided have been forgotten, with Halifax still gifting a Christmas Tree to Boston each year in recognition of their efforts.

SAM_4453.JPG

And it was gooooooood.

Today the city is rightfully proud of how its seafaring heritage has gone from strength to strength, and like any similar boardwalk, there are also stands and shacks set up to make the most of the tourist trade which was beginning to appear for the season. Something I took advantage of by way of having my first Beaver’s Tail: a delicacy which is merely the same shape as the Canadian mascot’s appendage, but is actually a thin slab of fried donut batter, which is then covered with a sweet topping of your choice. Naturally I went for the Maple option.

The boardwalk also boasts a number of artistic sculptures including some drunken lampposts (apparently this was the most humanlike pose the artists could envision), and for the small price of $2.50 you can also take a return ferry journey to the opposite shore in Dartmouth. Affectionately known as “The Darkside” to local Haligonians, there is also the option of strolling along this shoreline as well, although as a more industrialised area it’s main attraction is the view which takes in all of downtown Halifax and the whole boardwalk, which also includes historic vessels and monuments dedicated to those who fought in the wars and for whom Halifax Harbour would be the last place they would leave their footprints on Candian soil.

SAM_4520

Pre-peak tourist season.

In contrast to this is Pier 21, the place which was the first step for an even greater number, and is now the site of the Canadian Museum of Immigration. My first port of call here was in a temporary exhibition which focused on the causes and plights of refugees around the world today, dispelling several commonly held beliefs and which also explained Canada’s role in helping many find new homes, including the fact that Canada was the first to recognise and take in refugees who had to flee their own countries for gender or LGBT+ reasons.

The bulk of the museum was dedicated to the history of those who came to make Canada their home, from the earliest settlers to those who passed through Pier 21 itself until it closed in 1971, and beyond. There was also a section which included questions from the Candian citizenship test and I’m happy to say I scored the pass mark of 75%. Although I’m sure the actual test consists of more than just eight questions, it’s nice to know that it could be one possible post-Brexit option.

As with any country however, Canadian immigration has not been without its controversies, something which at one point included hefty charges for Chinese citizens who came to help build the railroad. Even during my time in Halifax the news was reporting on demonstrations and counter protests towards illegal immigrants making their way to Canada across the Quebec border from the U.S.

All in all though, as the start of my adventure it would have been hard to have topped the hospitality of old and new friends alike in a seaport city which perhaps made the biggest contribution to Canada adopting the Multiculturalism Act as an official policy.